Nearly 40 years ago, when asked by members of the African American community in Cleveland why she would even dream of working at predominantly white Case Western Reserve University, May L. Wykle, a small-town Ohio girl denied entrance to several nursing schools because she was black, said, "Well, someone has to hold the door open!"
Now, for Wykle, one of the country's most beloved and honored nurse educators and dean of the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case, the door is wide open and nowhere near being closed for her or any other African American faculty and students. She has made it her personal mission to bring more minorities—particularly African Americans—into the nursing profession. And it's because of that leadership and commitment that Case is honoring Wykle by establishing the May L. Wykle Professorship at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing.
Never before has a professorship been named for an African American at Case Western Reserve University. And never before has one person touched the lives of so many Case students, colleagues and faculty quite like Dean Wykle, who worries that still not enough is being done by nursing schools across the country to recruit and retain more African American students. Nor has enough been done in the black community, she says, to encourage young African American men and women to consider nursing as a career path.
The Wykle chair is one of the first named for an African American woman in nursing at major research university in the U.S.
A general nursing shortage is worrisome to the nursing profession and to the health of Americans. But to Wykle, a shortage in minority nurses is even more troublesome. Minority groups in the U.S. represent 25 percent of the population. African Americans, meanwhile, account for 12.1 percent of the population but only 4.9 percent of nurses (approximately 150,000 out of 2.2 million nurses employed in the U.S.). By 2015, one-third of the nation will be ethnically and culturally diverse, with African Americans expected to increase to 20 percent. Yet, African American student enrollment in baccalaureate nursing programs has experienced a steep drop in the past few years. In addition, cultural diversity among nurses enhances culturally competent care, Wykle says.
Through Wykle's leadership, minorities now make up about 21 percent of the Bolton School's student enrollment.
"We need to bring more minorities into nursing—including nursing education—so we can help to eliminate health disparities in communities of color," Wykle says. "Nurses of color can teach other nurses about how to communicate, how to understand cultural traditions concerning health and illness."
A member of the Case faculty for more than 35 years, Wykle is an internationally recognized expert in the field of aging and a pioneer in psychiatric nursing. Her research interests include geriatric mental health, family caregiving, minority cargivers and caring for patients with dementia. She also serves as director of the University Center on Aging and Health at the Bolton School.
Wykle says she is sometimes surprised by the turns her career has taken.
When she was denied entrance to several nursing schools because she was black, Wykle was told that housekeeping or kitchen work might be more appropriate. Despite that rejection, she worked for a year as a nurse's aide to merit admission. Through sheer determination, she became the first African American to attend the Ruth Brant School of Nursing in Martins Ferry, Ohio.
But while her resume lists professional degrees—which were earned at Case—as well as awards, associations, published works and elite appointments, Wykle remains most proud of her dedication to mentoring. She has initiated educational programs in Europe, Africa and Asia, including helping to start a master of science in nursing program at the University of Zimbabwe in Africa. She also was appointed the first Pope Eminent Scholar, the John and Betty Pope Chair, at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Human Development at Georgia Southwestern State University.
"The establishment of the May L. Wykle Professorship is a fitting way to honor a woman whose strength, compassion and leadership capture the art and soul of the nursing profession," said John L. Anderson, Case provost and university vice president. "Dean Wykle continues to influence nursing issues on an international level while inspiring the many successes of the Bolton School of Nursing. The university is proud to be honoring such a pioneer in her field."